Inciting Incident: Definition, Examples and How to Make it Good

Chances are you've come across the term “inciting incident” before. It goes by other names, but no matter what you call it, an inciting incident is an essential ingredient for a compelling story. So I thought we should do a deep dive into this literary term, exploring it and getting to the bottom of just what an inciting incident is. 

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What an inciting incident is.
  2. How to write one.
  3. Examples of well-known inciting incidents. 

What is An Inciting Incident?

An inciting incident is an event, big or small, that kicks off the conflict in a story. It's what gets the protagonist(s) out of their comfort zone and into the conflict of the plot. 

There are other names for the inciting incident, including:

Every story has an inciting incident, but not all of them are easy to spot. Luckily, there are some sure-fire ways to identify one of these. And once you know how to spot a good one, it becomes much easier to write an effective inciting incident. 

Note: Okay, not every story ever written has an inciting incident. But the ones that are entertaining and resonate with a large number of people do. I’d go so far as to say that a story without an inciting incident is not a finished story

Characteristics of an Inciting Incident

Most stories start off by showing the protagonist in their “normal” life. Of course, what's normal will vary depending on genre and character. 

In a sci-fi thriller, a character's normal might be operating a dangerous mining machine in deep space. In a romance, one protagonist's normal might be going home to an empty apartment and eating dinner alone. 

This “normal” is sometimes called the ordinary world. It helps to solidify the reader in the world that the protagonist inhabits. 

But then the inciting incident happens, and it forces the character out of their ordinary world. The inciting incident doesn't have to be big or traumatic (although it can be). What it has to do is change the trajectory of the character's life, sending them out of their comfort zone. 

In the case of a sci-fi thriller, it could mean a piece of faulty equipment failing and putting the mining crew in danger. In the romance, the inciting incident could be something as simple as finding a phone in a coffee shop. In this scenario, the phone would belong to the love interests—or at least lead the character to meet the love interest. 

So identifying the inciting incident is as easy as looking for an event that challenges the protagonist. There should be a clear before and after, and the conflict to follow should happen because of that incident. 

To give you a better idea, let's look at some examples. 

Examples of Inciting Incidents

Below are some inciting incident examples from famous stories. Chances are, you may already know some of them instinctively. 

Star Wars: A New Hope

The original Star Wars trilogy kicks off when Luke Skywalker sees the message from Princess Leia meant for Obi-Wan Kenobi. While Luke doesn't actually accept the call to adventure until he returns home to find that his Aunt and Uncle have been killed, the message does prompt him to visit Old Ben, which is what starts the series of events that eventually lead to the destruction of the Death Star and the fall of the Empire. 

The Hunger Games

The inciting event in The Hunger Games is when Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute to save her sister from the Games. Without having Prim called up to participate in the Hunger Games, Katniss would've gone on living her bleak life in the dystopian “normal” that is the world Suzanne Collins created. Plus, this instance of bravery and selflessness helps the reader root for Katniss and solidifies her character. 

Harry Potter

In Harry Potter, there are plenty of strange occurrences happening before the inciting incident. These seemingly unexplainable things (making a window disappear, getting onto the roof at school, and his uncle's steadfast refusal to let him see the letters) serve to keep the reader engaged, but they aren't the inciting incident. That happens when Hagrid shows up and tells Harry the truth: he's a wizard! 

Toy Story

When Buzz Lightyear comes onto the scene and becomes Andy's favorite toy, Woody's world is turned upside down. The rest of the story branches off from this inciting incident. 

Iron Man

Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy whose ordinary world is ripped away from him when his convoy is attacked in the Middle East. He's then taken hostage and forced to build weapons for the terrorist organization to use. But instead of building weapons, he builds the first Iron Man suit.


In every Spider-Man origin story, the inciting incident is always when Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains his powers. However, every Spider-Man movie has its own inciting incident. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the inciting incident comes when Spider-Man tries to stop some criminals only to find out that they're using extremely powerful alien technology. 

Monsters, Inc. 

In Monsters, Inc., the inciting incident comes when a child sneaks into the monsters' dimension through a door left open by Randall. Since it has already been established that the monsters believe humans are dangerous, this event makes for a tense and comical interaction. 

Tips for Writing a Great Inciting Incident

Whether you're writing a novel, a screenplay, or a short story, nailing the inciting incident is a must. This plot point is perhaps one of the most important in the story because the rest of the conflict comes as a result of this incident. 

To that end, here are some tips to help you write the best inciting event possible. 

Make it Early

While there's no exact place in your story where you should put your inciting incident, most pros say that it should come before the 10% mark of the story. There are certainly exceptions to this, like The Great Gatsby, where the inciting incident doesn't come until about a quarter of the way through the story. But this is not common, especially in modern storytelling.

You ‌want to spend only as much time as necessary establishing the protagonist's normal life before hitting this plot point. And that's not to say that anything before the incident can be boring. It still needs to hook the audience, set up the character arc, and provide exposition in a compelling manner. 

Don't Skimp on the Conflict

The inciting incident should be followed by what's called rising action. In other words, things need to get progressively more difficult for the protagonist after the turning point. Eventually, this will build up to the story's climax, which is when things look hopeless for the protagonist. 

There's a balance to strike here. If the inciting incident is more exciting than the climax, you'll probably want to re-think it. So you want to make sure the incident puts the protagonist into conflict—whether it’s with other characters, nature, or the antagonist. But make sure you're building tension from that point on, with occasional gaps in the rising conflict so the audience can catch their breath before the next exciting scene. 

Mind Your Theme

When determining your inciting incident, it's always good to think about the overall theme of your book. You don't have to be an outliner to determine your theme. If you have a general idea of what your story will be about, you probably can extrapolate a theme from that. 

If you're able to incorporate your theme into your inciting incident, it can make for a more cohesive story. For example, the theme of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one about the relationship between father and son. So it's fitting that the inciting incident is Indy learning that his father has been kidnapped while searching for the Holy Grail. 

Still Not Sure? Try One of These

There are certain tried-and-true types of inciting incidents. Some of them work better for certain genres than others. But most of them can be tailored to fit almost any type of story.  

Set Up a Mystery

In certain mystery subgenres, especially police procedurals, the inciting incident is a crime—often a murder. Sometimes the crime has direct ties to the main character (other than being assigned to solve it). Other times, the crime is simply the catalyst that sends the main character on their journey.

However, the mystery doesn’t have to be a crime. It could be a mysterious disappearance (of a person, place, or thing). It could be a code that needs to be broken or a puzzle that needs to be solved. If it leaves the character and the reader wondering what the heck is going on, then it’s a mystery. You can unfold it as the story progresses.

Make Sparks Fly

In most romance stories, the inciting incident is when the two protagonists first interact. This doesn't have to be an in-person interaction (take Sleepless in Seattle as an example), but it often is. In some romance subgenres, this first meeting is rocky. In others, it's love at first sight. Either way, there needs to be a good reason for the conflict that follows this incident. Otherwise, the story would be over almost as soon as it started. 

Introduce the Antagonist

Many action stories are only as good as their villains. This is why these types of stories often have inciting incidents that are put into motion by the antagonist. In Die Hard, John McClane's life is already hard enough as he's trying to save his marriage. But when Hans Gruber shows up, it gets a whole lot harder. 

Gruber and his crew showing up forces McClane to react, and this gets the story off and running. So you can't go wrong by having your antagonist incite this key event, making the main character's life hard from the get-go.

Death Works

Death as an inciting incident works well, but it doesn't need to be a murder or a crime. It could be the death of an acquaintance, a family member, or even a stranger who inexplicably mentions the protagonist in their will. It could even be the death of a pet!

Turn it Upside Down

Sometimes, the inciting incident is the sudden knowledge that the main character's normal life is a lie. This can be overhearing a conversation, getting a letter, or running into someone who insists that they know them. 

The specifics of the how are up to you to determine, but it should be some force acting on the protagonist. In other words, they shouldn't just wake up one day to realize that they've been living a lie. There needs to be a catalyst for it. 

Inciting Incident: Conclusion

The inciting incident is a vital part of an effective story arc. It happens early in the story and forces the protagonist(s) to react. Things ‌get harder after this plot point, eventually leading to the climax. It should reinforce the story's themes, hook the audience, and illuminate one or more character flaws the protagonist will have to overcome. To learn more about plot points like this one, check out our story structure hub here. Happy writing!

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